Bears of the World

Fossil records and historical data indicate that at one time there may have been hundreds of bear species worldwide, on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. Today, eight bear species remain in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. All of the bears found at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary are American black bears (Ursus americanus). Below you will find a photo and a brief description of each of the other seven species. For additional information, see the Additional Reading page. The status of each species is listed, according to the International Union for Conservation’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species for the year 2015. For complete listings and criteria, please visit

Asiatic Black Bear (Selenarctos thibetanus)

Description: This species is similar in size and appearance to the American black bear, although the fur is longer, soft, and shaggy. Adult males weigh from 200 to 255 pounds (92-116 kg.) and adult females weigh between 110 and 225 pounds (50-102 kg.). The Asiatic black bear is an excellent tree climber, as are most of the bear species. Its predominantly herbivorous diet resembles that of its American cousin: plants, fruits, insects, bees’ nests, and invertebrates are preferred foods. The most obvious difference between the two species is the chest blaze. This feature is found in about 25% of American black bears, and can vary in size and shape. In contrast, nearly all Asiatic black bears have cream-colored chest blazes in a crescent shape, giving the species its other common name: “moon bear.”

Range: They are found in forested areas throughout southern Asia, from Afghanistan to the islands of Japan. They are thought to prefer mountainous areas and have been found at elevations of 10,000 feet (over 3,000 meters) during summer months.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable. The population of Asiatic black bears in the wild has declined steadily, due to loss of habitat and the harvesting of their bile and body parts. Although actual data on population sizes or trends are lacking, it seems likely, given the rate of habitat loss and uncontrolled exploitation that the world population has declined by 30–49% over the past 30 years (3 bear generations) and at this rate will continue during the next 30 years unless abated by the implementation of significant conservation measures.

Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

Description: After years of debate, scientists have finally reached an agreement, based on genetic analysis, that the giant panda should indeed be classified among the bears rather than the raccoons. Its large head and striking black and white coloration make this bear one of the most recognizable species in the world. Adult males range from 176 to 275 pounds (80-125 kg.) while females weigh between 155 and 220 pounds (70-100 kg.). Giant pandas subsist almost entirely on bamboo, which they eat using a unique anatomical feature: their wrist bones extend to form an opposing “thumb.”

Range: The habitat of the giant panda is dictated by its dependence on bamboo. Today, they are found only in the bamboo-rich mountain forests of south- central China. They have the smallest range of any living bears.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Endangered. Human population growth and resultant habitat loss has led to a drastic reduction in numbers. A black market for pelts has also contributed to the species’ decline. It is estimated that fewer than 1,000-2,000 pandas remain in the wild. The greatest problem these bears face today is a lack of travel corridors.

Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus)

Description: The sun bear, which is the smallest of the living bear species, can be identified by its short, sleek coat and light-colored muzzle. It also has a cream-colored, crescent-shaped chest blaze similar to that of the Asiatic black bear. Thus the two species are commonly called moon bears and sun bears. Adult males weigh between 60 and 110 pounds (27-50 kg.) while females are just slightly smaller. Sun bears are the least studied of all bears. They are excellent climbers, and their diet is thought to consist of small mammals, birds, palm tree tips, and fruits. They also enjoy feasting on bees’ nests; in Indonesia and Malaysia they are often called “honey bears.”

Range: The sun bear is the only species to occupy the lowland tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. Its range is shrinking due to habitat loss, but it has been found throughout the region, from Bangladesh to Vietnam to the Indonesian Islands.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable. Large-scale deforestation that has occurred throughout Southeast Asia over the past three decades has dramatically reduced suitable habitat for this species. Although quantitative data on population sizes or trends are lacking, it is suspected that the global population of Sun Bears has declined by > 30% over the past 30 years (3 bear generations). Sun bears are also harvested for their gallbladders and are traded as pets.

Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus)

Description: Long, curved claws and a coat that is long, straight, and shaggy give this species a unique and somewhat disheveled appearance. Adult males weigh from 175 to 310 pounds (80-141 kg.) while females weigh between 120 and 210 pounds (55-95 kg.). Their mobile snouts and lips and gapped teeth are adapted for sucking up termites and ants, their primary food sources. They may also eat various kinds of vegetation, especially fruits in season. While American and Asiatic black bears will usually flee or climb a tree when threatened, a sloth bear is more likely to stand its ground.

Range: Sloth bears are predominantly found in the lowland forests of India and Sri Lanka. It is thought that they prefer rocky areas and drier climates.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable. As is the case with other bear species in Asia, sloth bears are threatened by habitat loss and gallbladder harvesting. Since these bears can be particularly dangerous when provoked, it has been difficult to garner public support on their behalf. Although no truly reliable large-scale population estimates exist for sloth bears, best guesstimates indicate a reasonable possibility of there being ~20,000 or fewer animals, and thus <10,000 adult animals.

Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)

Description: At first glance, it is easy to see where this species gets its name: a spectacled bear’s eyes are encircled by distinctive, light markings. Each bear’s markings are as unique as a human fingerprint. Adult males range from 175 to 275 pounds (80-125 kg.). Adult females weigh between 140 and 180 pounds (64-82 kg.). A spectacled bear spends even more time in trees than does the American black bear. This bear has the most varied diet of all the bears, eating dozens of species of vegetation including bromeliads and cactus. They will also eat young calves.

Range: The spectacled bear is the only bear species found in South America. It inhabits a wide range of habitats, from dense rainforest to coastal scrub desert. They are found as far north as Venezuela and as far south as Bolivia.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable. The fate of spectacled bears is linked to their role in various forms of Andean mythology. In some cultures, the bear is revered as a god, while in others it is regarded as evil and often destroyed. South American farmers kill spectacled bears to protect their livestock, and because they can sell the bear’s meat for profit, as well as other parts which are believed to have medicinal powers. Blood and bones are consumed by many people for strength and virility.

Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)

Description: The bear species we call “grizzly” here in North America is a subspecies of the brown bear, which is the most widespread of all bear species. There is some debate over the number of subspecies, but brown bears share similar characteristics: a massive build, a dish-shaped face, and a hump above the shoulders. Coloration varies among individuals, but the tips of the hair are often lighter, inspiring the name “grizzly.” Adult males may weigh between 300 and 900 pounds (136-410 kg.). Adult females weigh from 205 to 455 pounds (93-207 kg.). Diet (and weight) varies depending on the habitat; some have remained primarily herbivorous while others have become predators of moose, caribou, and elk. The heaviest brown bears are the coastal dwellers that feast on salmon along the west coast of Alaska and British Columbia.

Range: Brown bears are found across the northern hemisphere: in Canada, Alaska, and the northwestern United States, in parts of eastern and western Europe, and throughout northern Asia, including Japan.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Least concern. Although nearly 200,000 brown bears still exist in the wild, their numbers are spread thinly in many areas and they have been completely extirpated from vast portions of their former range. In North America, brown bears occupy less than half of their former habitat. The populations in central and Western Europe have dwindled to a few hundred individuals. In many places, they are considered (though not classified) as very threatened.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus)

Description: The polar bear is not only the largest of the bear species, it is the largest terrestrial carnivore. Adult males weigh 880 to 1,500 pounds (400-682 kg.) and females are roughly half that size. Polar bears have no natural predators and are almost entirely carnivorous. Their diet consists primarily of seals but may include small walruses or whales. They may eat vegetation (primarily berries) occasionally during the summer. They have extraordinary adaptations for survival in the arctic climate. Their white fur provides camouflage while hunting, but is also translucent, allowing sunlight to be absorbed by their black skin. Their specialized paws, adapted for swimming, shoveling snow, and traveling on ice, are paddle-like with hair between the pads. Their dense fur provides insulation from the cold.

Range: Polar bears are found throughout the Arctic region. They migrate almost constantly, to follow the pack ice that builds annually in winter and recedes in summer. It is within the cracks of this pack ice that polar bears find most of the seals that they hunt.

2008 IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable.  It is suspected that there will be > 30% reduction to polar bear habitat over the next 3 generations (45 years). Global climate change posses a substantial threat to the habitat of polar bears. Recent modeling of the trends for sea ice extent, thickness and timing of coverage predicts dramatic reductions in sea ice coverage over the next 50-100 years. Sea ice has declined considerably over the past half century. Additional declines of roughly 10-50% of annual sea ice are predicted by 2100. They must spend the majority of their time on this ice hunting, since their success rate in catching prey is only about 1 in 50 attempts. Polar bear populations also have an exceptionally slow growth rate, as females must wait at least 3 years between breeding cycles. This makes populations extremely vulnerable to overharvesting.